2013 Book Prizes

The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen

The Skinning Tree Winner of the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize

Five words from the blurb: India, boy, school, tragedy, regime

The Skinning Tree is set in India during the 1940s. It tells the story of nine-year-old Sabby, a boy who is sent to a boarding school in Northern India. Being away from Calcutta is meant to protect him from advancing Japanese troops, but life away from home is hard as the teachers are strict and abusive. The boys take their frustrations out on animals; killing them and hanging their skins out to dry. The book does a fantastic job of showing how British culture has influenced Indian life, but I found many sections of the book a bit flat and lifeless.

The Skinning Tree was a strange reading experience. It contained two writing styles; so different they could almost to be written by two separate people. Some sections were beautifully written, with atmospheric descriptions that compelled the reader to continue. The opening paragraph, for example, was fantastic:

Murder was the plaything of us kids. We fooled with the idea of killing like some kids fool with fire. We stood around in free time on the far side of the pitch, leaning against the wall or sitting on it, kicking our boot heels against it, talking — talking about killing, killing someone, someone we didn’t like, how we would do it: killing was easy, no one would tell on you, because they wouldn’t. Talking and bragging. Then one day it happened. Sister Man was found on the rocks below the school.

But then other parts seemed very poorly written. The dialogue was especially clunky and the repetition of  “said Sabby” drove me nuts! I found that the sections written in the first person were generally well done, but the third person narrative didn’t work. It was weird, distant and read like the simple books children have when they first learn to read. Things improved as the book progressed, but the wonderful final chapter only seemed to reinforce my thoughts about what had been lacking at other moments.

The title and description of this book may make some people wary, but the scenes of violence aren’t particularly graphic and should be tolerated by all but the most sensitive reader.

Overall this was an odd book. I recommend it to people who are interested in studying different styles of writing!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…life changing and unforgettable. Julia’s Blog

…occasionally the narration is jarring and confusing Moni’s Nook

 ….it was the 81 year old author’s evocative descriptions of an Anglicised Indian life, of afternoon whist parties, of lengthy train journeys that will long remain with me. Pen and Paper

2013 Historical Fiction Recommended books

The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood

The Last Banquet

Five words from the blurb: orphan, chef, France, delicacies, obsession

The Last Banquet is a vivid book that grabs the reader’s attention from the first page. It begins with disgusting scenes of a boy eating beetles and continues with investigations into a wide range of bizarre food. The child grows up and becomes a member of the aristocracy, but he continues to experiment with food – preparing and recording the taste of everything from cats to flamingo tongues. As you can tell from the description, this isn’t a book for the squeamish!

The story is set in 18th Century France and brings this period of history to life. The Palace of Versailles, France’s battle with Corsica, and the more personal history of a boy who rises through the social classes, are seemlessly blended together in a strangely compelling narrative.

The writing is excellent. Everything is described evocatively with a simple structure that allows the reader to absorb vast amounts of information without any effort. Many deeper themes are layered in the plot and I especially loved the ideas about food and its role in society:

He touches briefly on the political uses of taste; not just in fashion or furniture but in wine and food. About how taste defines and separates the sexes and the classes and the races. I had been lucky to fall so in love with Roquefort, and to do so immediately. The development of taste is like learning to read – and we live in a world where we deny most of those around us access to its alphabet.

This book also contains some of the most sensual sex scenes I’ve ever read. Most authors struggle with this kind of writing, but Jonathan Grimwood deserves special praise for making the sex scenes feel realistic and erotic. He uses all the senses to create beautiful scenes that feel just as natural and interesting as the experiments with food.

The story and themes of this book are bold and harsh. The author doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, but the inclusion of violence and bizarre butchery never feel gratuitous.

I admired the originality of this book and highly recommend it to those with a strong stomach!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I was both riveted and repulsed by the descriptions of food in this book. Books Are My Favourite and Best

…the novel was at risk of dissolving into a plethora of bizarre fetishes. Three Guys One Book

I rarely get to the end of a book and wish it were longer. This is one of those rare occasions Me and My Big Mouth

2013 Historical Fiction

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, murder, lover, remote, family

Burial Rites is an atmospheric story set in Iceland during the 19th century. The book is based upon real events and tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a women sentenced to death for murdering two men. There were no prisons on Iceland at this time so Agnes is sent to live on a remote farm, but the family are unhappy to have a criminal in their midst. Even the presence of a young priest, instructed to help Agnes mentally prepare for death, does not reassure them. But over time the family begin to bond with Agnes and the truth about her actions are slowly revealed.

The story itself is quite simple, but the author manages to make it gripping throughout. Details of family life in this harsh, isolated environment add to the book’s appeal:

Steina Jonsdottir was piling dried dung in the yard outside her family’s turf croft when she heard the rapid clop of horses’ hooves. Rubbing mud off her skirts, she stood and peered around the side of the hovel to better see the riding track that ran through the valley. A man in a bright red coat was approaching. She watched him turn towards the farm and, fighting a flicker of panic at the realisation she would have to greet him, retreated back around the croft, where she hurriedly spat on her hands to clean them and wiped her nose on her sleeve. 

Burial Rites could be described as crime fiction as there is a gruesome mystery at its heart, but I think the book will have greater appeal to fans of literary fiction who will appreciate the clever structure and emotional depth.

My only criticism is that the novel failed to capture the Icelandic mindset. When reading this book amongst many other Icelandic ones it stood out as different. The countryside and their living conditions appeared to be well researched and accurate, but the thoughts and actions of the characters often felt wrong. Many subtle aspects of their culture were missing, including their unique independence, and without reference to Icelandic names and places it could easily have been set in any Western country. This is unlikely to detract from most reader’s enjoyment of the book, but is something I found a little disappointing. 

If you enjoy literary fiction with historical elements then you’ll love this compelling, atmospheric read. I’m sure people will particularly enjoy its originality, but be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Kent writes with an artist’s hand, crafting her story meticulously. S Krishna’s Books

 …at times so entrancing it is almost hypnotic. Cerebral Girl

It’s original without being gimmicky, poetic without being overdone. The Incredible Rambling Elimy


2013 Non Fiction

The Novel Cure: An A – Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies

Five words from the blurb: advice, cure, ailments, books, world

The Novel Cure is a reference book that will delight every book lover. It claims that all of life’s problems can be cured by reading the appropriate book and prescribes a wide range of literature for everything from adultery and bad backs, to hunger and shyness. I’m not entirely convinced by all of their suggestions, but love the way it introduces the reader to many forgotten texts and exudes a passion for a wide variety of literature.

I admit that I haven’t read this book from cover to cover – the advice is so rich that it doesn’t make sense to do this. The joy is in looking up individual sections and discovering new reading ideas. I found myself adding to the wishlist on almost every page. I particularly liked the sound of Wolf Solent by John Cowper Paris, which is described as a cure for Internet addiction:

 ….once you discover JCP, as we shall call him, you’ll chuck your monitor into the nearest skip and go and live out the rest of your days among the birds and the bees.

On a slightly negative note, some of the advice didn’t make sense to me. I have a fear of flying and it suggested reading Night Flight by Antoine Saint-Exupery. I haven’t read this book and so don’t know whether or not it ends well, but the last thing I need is more images of plane crashes running through my head when I get on a plane. Similarly recommending The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe for agoraphobia and Blindness by José Saramago for fear of commitment made little sense to me, but both are amazing books so I’m happy people read them, whatever the reason.

I also loved the way it suggested books for every age group. I’ve only read one of the ten books recommended for thirty-somethings (Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, which I loved), but I am interested in trying many of the others:

The writing style was light and chatty and I found the advice entertaining and easy to read, even when I had no interest in the ailment or the remedy suggested. I believe that the right book can help if read at the right point in time and I look forward to trying suggestions from this book for many years to come.


Should I give them the benefit of the doubt and see if Night Flight cures my fear of flying?

Have you read Wolf Solent?

2013 Booker Prize

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: shanty, dream, challenges, America, new

We Need New Names begins in Zimbabwe where 10-year-old Darling is living in a shanty town. She manages to stave off her hunger pangs by stealing guavas from the homes of rich, white people. Things look as though they might improve with the fall of white supremacy, but life for the children only becomes more harrowing. Eventually Darling manages to escape to America and the book shows how she adapts to life in a very different culture.

Unfortunately I had mixed feelings about this book. Darling’s narration was compelling, but I’m afraid the immigrant story has been done many times before and this book failed to add anything new to the genre. I found myself losing interest in Darling’s story once she’d left Africa and wish the story had concentrated on those left behind.

The book had many fantastic scenes and I especially liked the subtle way that the horrors the children faced were woven into the text. This innocence and simple acceptance of events kept the mood light and entertaining, despite the starvation, child pregnancies and murder.

The book also covered many bigger, global issues, but, although dressed in childhood charm, I occasionally felt that Darling’s comments were too wise for her age:

If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?

Overall this was a book of two halves. The first half was a refreshing new voice in African fiction; the second an average repeat of an over-told story. I’m not convinced it deserves a place on the Booker shortlist.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 ….no one captures the simple wickedness of children better and this book is cruel and cutting in all the right places. Bookslingers

….the book could have been a bit more polished but everyone got something out of it… Bookfoolery

NoViolet Bulawayo has created a fictional world that stuns as it captivates. The Bowed Bookshelf



2013 Recommended books

The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

The View on the Way Down

Five words from the blurb: brother, died, family, apart, truth

Emma is nine-years-old when her brother Kit dies. Her older brother, Jamie, disappears after the funeral and Emma is suddenly the only child in a grief-stricken household. Emma, Jamie, and their parents take turns to narrate the story, which shows how each individual is affected by Kit’s death. The book looks at depression and suicide and enables the reader to understand what depression feels like for both the sufferer and those around them.

I think the taboo surrounding suicide has finally been lifted as this is the third book I’ve read this year that deals with the subject. It was interesting to get an insight into what motivates people to end their life and by the end of the book I felt I understood the pain they go through:

He did nothing, simply carried on as before. Head down, struggling through the days. Keeping going, getting through. He’d always known, without having to consider it, that there was no chance of recovery. Not for him, not for any of them. The passing years hadn’t changed a thing. There was no getting over this.

The subject was handled with great sensitivity and had clearly been very well researched (if not personally experienced?). It provided a lot of useful information about interacting with those who suffer from depression and it would be wonderful if this book helped to reduce the stigma faced by families who have lost someone to suicide.

The writing was simple, but effective. It was compelling and managed to maintain my interest throughout – mainly because the characters felt so realistic. It is rare to read a book that manages to capture the thoughts and emotions of so many different people and I loved the fact I could understand and empathise with them all, despite their differing viewpoints. The View on the Way Down didn’t quite move me to tears, but it produced the biggest lump my throat has experienced this year – a surprising accolade that I didn’t think could be taken away from the real-life heartbreak of The Son.

I hope that word about this book spreads and everyone reads it quietly, with an open mind. It is very sad, but the world would be a better place if everyone understood the heartache and challenges of living with depression.

Highly recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I don’t use ratings on my blog anymore but if I did this book would get 6 out of 5. Little Reader Library

…(a) spell-binding debut that has completely blown me away. The Unlikely Bookworm

 a stunning novel and one which I’ve been unable to review yet because every time I’ve tried, I start crying. The Bibliomouse